Jeff Morris Talks Paper Champion

Creator’s Workshop member Jeff Morris recently released his evocative one-shot comic Paper Champion online for all audiences to read. Available for free on his website, he is joined by Jorge Santiago, Jr. on pencils and inks, Emily Elmer Walker on colors, and Micah Myers on letters.

Paper Champion examines the relationship between grief and goals, reflecting on the bittersweet moments that come when a lost loved one can’t watch you achieve your dreams. We spoke with Jeff about his evocative story.

Comics Experience: “Stories can give shape to our questions and help us heal from trauma,” you said on your website. Paper Champion is such a personal story for you. How did putting it together help with the healing process? How can creativity in general comfort the grieving?

Jeff Morris: Seeing my father die in front of me was a traumatic experience, but I didn’t realize how deep the roots of trauma grew until I saw Jorge Santiago Jr’s art in Paper Champion. At first, I wept at the depictions of my father’s death, but, after a moment, I refused to–no, I couldn’t–look at the images. I was overcome with guilt and anger, and, for the first time, I realized that I blamed myself for my father’s death.

Logically, I know I’m not responsible for my dad’s death, but trauma isn’t logical. It took Jorge’s art to help me see why I wrote that scene in Paper Champion. As I reflected on the images again, I discovered that I’d written this scene to tell myself–and the world–that, “It’s okay: you did everything you could to keep him alive. It’s not your fault.”

Through the care of Jorge Santiago Jr., Emily Elmer Walker, and Micah Myers, I was able to see my father’s death with new eyes. For so long, I’d kept my grief locked away inside me, yet now it was an experience I’d invited others to share with me. True, meaningful connection takes place when we’re willing to be vulnerable and show each other our scars. By sharing my story of loss, I hope to form a connection with readers that helps us heal and re-define our trauma in a new light.

CE: How has being a wrestler and an actor helped with your storytelling in comics? What parallels between these three media have you noticed, and how can they influence one another

JM: As The Professor Murdock, I learned to do whatever it took to get a real reaction from the crowd. Call a fan a “swamp donkey” and hope they spit at you? Check! Tell a kid that Santa Claus isn’t real? You betcha! No matter what, I was willing to do anything for the sake of getting “heat,” i.e. hatred, from a crowd. All that mattered was that it felt real.

Ultimately, the question comes down to what feels real. If a pro-wrestler, such as The Rock or Stone Cold Steve Austin, can convince you that they believe they’re the best wrestler in the world, does it really matter if it’s true or not?

I’ve always been a big fan of the acting coach, Sanford Meisner, who said, “Acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” With Paper Champion, I drew from my real-life experience of watching my father die in front of me, searching for his face in the crowd, and winning my first wrestling champion to create a story that felt true and alive. Good actors do this on stage with every performance. As an audience, we know they’re playing a role, but effective actors will take us out of the illusion of watching a play and transport us into the reality of a character’s world.

In collaboration with Jorge, we made decisions to help readers feel and experience the narrative as if it were happening to them. We wanted readers to feel loss just like Jacky felt loss, and we wanted readers to experience the bitter-sweet moments of victory just like The Professor does by the story’s end.

CE: What lessons did you take away from Comics Experience to help you shape Paper Champion?

JM: Through practical, honest advice, the Comics Experience community helped me shape, revise, and publish a story that could reach a wide audience and leave them with a sense of joy. Every critique told me what worked and what didn’t. For example, there was an early scene where The Professor dabbled with steroids, and everyone on the workshop was like, “No! No! No!” Additionally, Marc Sumerak, a former editor from Marvel, encouraged me to tap into my real-life desire to make my father proud. In response, I rewrote the father to be a source of inspiration for Jacky’s victory, instead of a catalyst for his guilt and all-consuming loss.

Storytelling thrives in the context of community, and I needed a community of honest, passionate, and experienced creators to help Paper Champion reach its full potential. Without the wealth of critiques from the CE community, as well as the encouragement of several artists, editors, and writers through the project thread, I could not have published Paper Champion. I needed a safe community where I could fail, experiment and grow as a storyteller, and Comics Experience provided just that!